Russia, the West and Ukraine

As countries essentially within what is sometimes referred to as the Western sphere of geopolitical influence, the Governments of Guyana and the other Caricom states must often ponder on the extent to which the world seems to have changed quite dramatically since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its own post-1945 sphere of influence.

A common assumption then was that the Western powers would be facing a global arena of relative quietism, with the Eastern European states seeking to integrate within the increasingly influential European Union; and the European Union and the United States themselves seeking to stretch the scope of capitalist development among spheres once dominated by the Soviet Union like the small states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and those subdivided from Yugoslavia.

In the first decade of the post-Soviet era too, Russia seemed to be concerned to replace its dissolved communist state economy with some form of capitalism though, as the large entity that it was, standing independently of the EU sphere. And it took a little time before we saw the evolution of what has been, in effect, a strongly state-influenced capitalist economy which some now claim to be under the direction of a free enterprise oligarchy led by Vladimir Putin as the President of the country.

For what in fact we witnessed was a failure of Gorbachev and his colleagues, the last masters of the Soviet Union, to achieve a transition to a China-like, strongly one-party state-dominated capitalist economy, while simultaneously sustaining its own geopolitical location in the wider world.

Few in the West, in the decade of the 1990s, thought of the psychological effect of the sudden disintegration of a large power on its population, and certainly on some of those who, as once faithful servants-masters of the Soviet Union and its communist political system, now sought to find a new location in their country; and how those individuals would analyse the position of their country in an international framework of Western, essentially capitalist, influence.

For a while it did look as if the leaders of the new Russia were content to find their country’s place within the sphere of a globalization led by the United States. But what has been an insistence by Putin that his country, like other large countries, recognizes spheres of influence, has therefore come as something of a surprise to the rest of us. For no one assumed that there would be residual psychological effects on the leaders of the successor state to the Soviet Union, of a sudden disintegration not only of its domestic political and economic system, but of what they had long believed to be the country’s rightful geopolitical sphere of influence.

The decision of the European Union to offer Ukraine membership of its integration system seems to have come as a shock to the leaders of Russia. But Putin seemed to have quickly understood that in a world of globalization, with countries reorganizing their positions and statuses, the offer of economic integration meant, in fact also, an offer of political association, as has been demonstrated in the case of the former states of Comecon, the Soviet-dominated integration system, like Poland and Czechoslovakia.

The spectre of the location of Ukraine, once led by Nikita Krushchev, as within the geopolitical sphere of, in effect, a reorganized Western Europe and indeed on the borders of Russia has clearly been difficult – indeed it seems – impossible for Putin and his leadership group to accept. For the leadership of Russia has already seen countries within its own geopolitical sphere suddenly fall within the sphere of the West, through linkage with the EU.

In effect, the new geopolitics of Europe seems to have stuck in Putin’s throat, and if polls supportive of him, taken in Russia, are to be believed, in the throats of many of his countrymen. The thought that the way of influence of the EU, linked to the United States, has been to seek to strangle the economy of Russia, has no doubt added fuel to the fire. And though he has not actually said it, Putin must also feel that this marks a resumption of the style and practices of the Cold War.

President Obama would certainly wish to be supportive of the EU position, though there have been intimations from American Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, of a certain degree of concern at EU persistence for early economic integration of Ukraine. And while it is unclear what the effects of consistent economic pressure on Russia would be, the dominant sentiment of the US and the EU must be to induce popular annoyance and eventual withdrawal of support for Putin.

The days, certainly since the end of the Cold War in which a contretemps between the two major Western powers, the US and EU, and Russia, would become of major concern to the rest of the world would, however, seem to have passed away. And President Obama’s push for a Trans-Pacific Partnership and his seeming determination to reach out to the emerging powers of Asia, would appear to be taking precedence.

The recent agreement between Putin and the Western powers to reach an understanding on Ukraine appears to suggest that neither of the major powers would wish to see a continuing conflagration between the EU (and by extension the US) and Russia. The world of capitalism is in the process of repositioning, with new competitors from the Far East in firm contention. Undoubtedly that is where American eyes are increasingly focused, regardless of who leads.

To the US, Russia is not a central country or issue in that contention. And the persistence of Putin himself in continuing to find a way of talking to Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, suggests that he too understands that Western Europe has much to contribute as he seeks to upgrade Russia as a decisive economic competitor in today’s capitalist world.

In our part of the world we are left only to ponder on the possibilities, knowing that the resolution of wider Europe’s post-Cold War arrangements, and Russia’s search for a place vis-à-vis that configuration, will continue long after the Ukraine issue has resolved itself.


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